Fellow Arkansan and UCA alum Andrew Mobbs holds the distinction of being the only person I know to have set foot Mongolia. When he discusses his job teaching English in Mongolia with the Peace Corps*, a post which brought him to the town of Mankhan, admiration and respect for his adopted country shine through. Before you read about the Land of the Blue Sky, I’ll leave you with the same words with which Andrew ended his message to me—Za, saihan unshaarai, or happy reading.
Andrew, there was an article published last week on a well-known travel site entitled “Why You Should Make Mongolia Your Next Destination.” Skimming through the details, from fermented milk to reindeer to a communist past, I’m curious to learn more about the country. Can you explain how you came to be placed in Mongolia? Did you request your location and/or job duties?
I didn’t have a choice in the matter as to where I was placed; literally, it could have been almost anywhere in the world. Yet, after being in Mongolia for nearly two years, I’ve come to realize I was meant to be here and am extremely thankful that fate dealt me this card. Upon finding out I’d be working in Mongolia, I knew and agreed to my job beforehand (a TEFL Volunteer), but I had no idea where I’d be living in country specifically. Two months after my arrival, it was announced I’d be living in a soum (countryside village) in the remote west of the country.
You’ve had an interest in creative writing, specifically poetry, for many years. To what extent has teaching English with the Peace Corps allowed you to share your love of words?
Although I don’t teach poetry in the classroom, it’s still been integral in my life here. In addition to meeting several fellow Volunteers who love to write and sharing our work, I’ve had the pleasure of hearing Mongolian poetry recited. In many regards, it’s diametrically opposite to most western poetry, which makes it that much more interesting. I also, at my school’s manager’s behest, entered a poetry recital competition last fall. Since I didn’t know any Mongolian poems by heart, I translated a short William Carlos Williams poem and read it in both languages, hamming up it for my Mongolian audience. That was something!
In the company of Mongol Eej (mom), and Akh (older brother)
What is your teaching location like? What materials do you use?
In one word, remote. I teach in a countryside school, though it’s relatively large compared to other countryside schools, having about 900 students. I love my school and am absolutely devoted to it. We’re located in the far west, and we’re completely engulfed by mountains, most of which are snow-capped for most of the year. To say they’re aesthetically pleasing would be a gross understatement. As for materials, being a countryside school means not having as many in general. I get pretty resourceful, using pictures from magazines and making up games for my lessons using construction paper and index cards. It suffices.
We don’t really have roads
What are the most notable differences in education when comparing the Mongolian system with the American?
I could write a manifesto on this topic, as there are so many and so much to elaborate on. The primary differences are the hierarchy in the Mongolian schools and the amount of social activities that come with the educational activities. Oftentimes, classes are let out early or not held altogether in lieu of a basketball competition or preparation for a local concert. Also, for what it’s worth, Mongolian students must clean (in great detail) their classrooms each day. They’re a very hardworking people.
8th graders hunt down petroglyphs on a field trip to Ishgen Tolgoi
I could ask a million questions about education alone, but I’d also like to hear about living in Mongolia. What’s the population of your community and how integrated do you feel you have become?
My community has about 4,000 in total, but maybe half of them actually live in what’s called the ‘town center’. The rest are randomly dispersed throughout the countryside within our boundaries, catering to their livestock as most nomads do. I’m proud to say I’ve become quite integrated; I’m well-known (which isn’t saying much, being the only foreigner here), well-liked, can chat and banter with the young and old alike, and I’m respected for my work. I think how integrated I’ve become might be my proudest accomplishment.
Whipping up dinner in the ger-sweet-ger
It sounds like you really have become integrated, congrats! Help us out, what are some customs to brush up on before visiting the country?
All customs are equally important and good to know. The Naadam festival (the three manly sports–archery, horse racing and wrestling), Tsagaan Sar (the lunar new year celebration), and taboos/superstitions (e.g. don’t discuss death or those who have died) probably top the list.
Ooboos are shamanistic monuments that Mongolians revere for guidance and luck; they walk around them three times, throwing rocks
Have you studied a local language or dialect?
I’d say my Mongolian is somewhere between intermediate and advanced. That may sound like an epic feat given the time I’ve been here, but I make enough mistakes to humble myself every day. It’s just a blast trying to speak, and the motivation to learn and improve is high. Mongolians love it when you speak their language. My community is comprised of an ethnic Mongolian group called the Zakhchin, and their dialect has some noticeable differences from the dominant Khalkh dialect. For instance, they pronounce /x/ as /k/, and they have a slightly different lexicon for certain objects. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed learning this and modifying my speech to their dialect. It truly makes me feel one with my people.
Climbing Ulaan Yamaa Mountain in Khovd
What do you miss most from America? On the other hand, what are aspects of living in Mongolia that you’ll miss when you return state-side?
I miss several things about America, obviously, but I can live without all of them, save my family and friends. I suppose I miss the rain; our climate here is desert, so rain is extremely sparse. Yeah, actually, the rain–nothing like a torrential downpour, just the constant tranquil showers with gray skies and thunder. When I return to America, I’ll miss everything about Mongolia. Everything.
Parting shot of Ulaan Yamaa Mountain
Wow, what an experience! Andrew’s journey isn’t over yet; be sure to check out his poetry blog, Lay down these words before your mind like rocks, which he updates from Mongolia.
*Bear in mind, dear readers, that these views are property of Mr. Mobbs and do not necessarily reflect those of the Peace Corps